In reflecting on yesterday's massacre at the headquarters of the French satirical periodical Charlie Hebdo, a few things come to mind with regards to life in Madison.
First, of course, is The Onion. The closest thing Americans have to Charlie Hebdo was born right here in Madison, though its headquarters long ago moved to New York and then to Chicago. The Onion skewers everybody: liberals, conservatives, the media itself and, of course, religion. It's no accident that the best satirical weekly in the country started here. Madison, at its best, is fun, funny and sharp-witted. In fact, a former editor at The Onion wrote a great essay yesterday about the killings and freedom of speech.
That spirit is carried on today in the pages of the Wisconsin State Journal in the work of cartoonist Phil Hands. It's easy in Madison to send up Governor Scott Walker, as he often does, but Hands is equally chiding towards aging and self-righteous Madison liberals, who he depicts as a balding, bespectacled man with a pony tail and nose in the air. It seems to me that this caricature captures the spirit of a local stereotype perfectly.
Madison is also home to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which just completed a major expansion on its downtown building to accommodate a growing staff. The organization isn't evangelical about atheism. Instead, it works hard every day to keep religion and government as separate as possible, which is just as it should be. The fact that the foundation is so healthy is a good sign for the future.
That's because it's religion that is the cause of so much of this trouble. After all, it wasn't atheists, but Islamic extremists, who murdered a dozen people yesterday literally in the name of their god. It wasn't agnostics who flew fully loaded airliners into the World Trade Center. The troubles in Northern Ireland weren't between warring factions of atheists and agnostics. The murderous Crusades weren't led by nonbelievers, nor was the Spanish Inquisition.
To be sure, there were complicated political and economic forces behind each of those sets of atrocities, but religion certainly played a large role in the zealousness of the inhumanity. So while I agree with Nicholas Kristoff's excellent piece in which he argues that, of course, Islamist terrorists don't represent Islam, when a person really believes that he'll be rewarded in heaven for being a suicide bomber, you start to wish that his faith wasn't quite so strong.
I understand that religion can be a great comfort for adherents, particularly in difficult times of their lives. I was struck by reports of Pope Francis' comforting words just before Christmas to a small boy who lost his dog. The Pope was supposed to have told the child that his dog was in heaven. I don't personally go in for heaven or souls, but I do believe strongly in pets and in caring about the feelings of little kids. It sounded like the Pope did the right thing on a human level, which for me is the only level that matters.
Or he would have if that story were true. It turns out Pope Francis never actually said that. But let's hope that even if the Pope didn't actually say that all dogs go to heaven, he still thinks that they do. The man has said enough other comforting things to make him one of the few religious leaders in the world whom I respect.
Still, I can't help but feel that religion as a whole has done much more damage in the world than good. When extremists -- whether Islamist, Christianist or otherwise -- feel that their faith justifies murder, I grow prouder that Madison is the wellspring of a satirical publication that isn't afraid to sometimes point out religions' incongruities, as well as home to a top-notch editorial cartoonist and an organization that strives to make this nation more free for those of us who chose to live our lives happily without a deity.
I am Charlie Hebdo.